<To the leader: according to Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A Psalm.>
1 I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
3 I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah
4 You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.
6 I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit:
7 “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah
10 And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
11 I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
16 When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
The shattering of the world that we know can often lead to a crisis of faith where we wonder if God is present or if God’s ways have changed. Like the other Psalms of Asaph that open book three of the psalter, it is likely that this psalm originates in the world-shattering experience of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon. Perhaps to a person sitting in a sheltered place these agonized meditations about the faithfulness of God in the moment may seem dangerously close to heresy but this is a place where the solidness of the tradition handed on to the psalmist is challenged by the acuteness of experience (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 335). The very question of God’s identity is at stake for the psalmist as they move between the agonizing questions their present evokes and the narrative of God’s covenant they received throughout their life.
The initial verse is more jagged than translations, “my voice unto God” is repeated twice as the psalmist tries to bring their pain into a coherent speech. In many places I have written about a heartbroken God who mourns the state of the people, but here we have the utterances of a heartbroken psalmist who feels abandoned and forsaken by God. Prayer has given way to these agonized meditations which are seeking to make sense of their world which has been shattered. They are unable to sleep in this anxious state of questioning as they sit with their feelings, prayers, broken dreams, and questions not only about the future but also their relationship to God.
The acuteness of their experience has made them question whether God has changed and whether the covenant still holds. Has God spurned the individual forever? Has God broken God’s promises? Is the LORD no longer faithful? Had God’s anger and wrath overwhelmed the motherly compassion God has for the individual and the people? The wording of these questions reflects a person formed in the faith of Israel. In particular they reference the thirteen attributes of God which are seen first in Exodus 34:
“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation Exodus 34: 6-7
When the psalmist asks, “Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up compassion?” What is being referenced are key pieces of this identity that God declared for Godself. In addition to these three attributes of God is the irrevocable promise/covenant that God made with the people. The right hand, the action of the God of Israel, has changed towards the people causing the psalmist grief. The psalmist in their meditation questions the justice of God’s withheld action, grace, compassion, and steadfast love. In Melanchthon’s famous phrase, “To know Christ is to know his benefits.” (Melanchton, 2014, p. 24) In the psalmist’s situation where the benefits and characteristics of God are unknown or unseen they begin to wonder if they truly know the LORD their God.
The psalm’s tone changes abruptly in verse eleven and this has led some interpreters to question if this is two psalms joined together. The two sections make sense as a part of a common meditation where in the acuteness of their experience the psalmist again attempts to hold onto the solidness of the tradition. In a time where God’s hand is turned away they go back to the memory of times when God’s strong arm redeemed the people. In a time of disasters, they remember the wonder working God. In a time where the holy places have been defiled they cling to the holiness of their God. The theological crisis posed by their experience and highlighted in their meditation is not met with logic but with memory.
The dynamic of the life of faith moves between experience and memory. In times of crisis the belief that things will change is often rooted in the experience of times of faithfulness in the past. Often the life of prayer is a life of calling upon God to be God, to exhibit the characteristics that God identifies Godself with, to recall the covenant and deliver the people. The words that desperately cling to faith in the difficult time may seem impertinent in times of peace, but that is a part of the rich gift of the scriptures which attempt to witness to the life of faith in both the times of peace and the times where the world of the author has been shattered and they are attempting to make sense of their world, their life, and God’s place within it.
 Hesed (steadfast love), hannot (gracious)t, and rahamim (compassion) in Hebrew, rahamim is translated as merciful in Exodus 34:6
 Literally sickness in Hebrew